NM researcher develops trees for dry, rural areas

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2009 9:44 AM

A New Mexico State University researcher is using tree planting to help arid, impoverished regions in the Four Corners region and Africa.

Mick O'Neill, the superintendent of New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center in Farmington, researched hybrid poplar trees to see which clones will grow best using drip irrigation in the arid region. The Navajo Agriculture Product Industry is working with him to evaluate whether poplar production can be a viable agroforestry crop for them.

Half the homes on the Navajo reservation use fuel from wood or coal and wood shavings from the trees could be used to cool the ground, conserve soil or as biofuel for Four Corners power plants, O'Neill said.

The poplars also absorb nitrates from contaminated groundwater through their roots. They can help remediate old uranium or petroleum processing sites or irrigated land where high nitrate concentrations have contaminated the groundwater, he said.

The agroforester's research is being used by more than 200,000 small dairy farmers in East Africa.

Not only do specially developed trees and hedges improve the environment, but they are also being used as tools for rural economic development, O'Neill said.

"Trees provide many resources for farm families, including timber, poles, fuel wood, fruit, animal fodder and medicinals," O'Neill said. "They also help conserve soil, provide shade and, of course, add beauty to the landscape."

O'Neill, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana and Burkina Faso, has spent 20 years working in those countries and Mali, Niger, Kenya, Rwanda and in India.

The researcher has developed contour hedgerow systems consisting of forage grasses and leguminous, or nitrogen fixing, shrubs to conserve and improve soil and as a protein supplement for farm animal feed.

The hedge rows work best for farms of between one to five acres, he said. Farmers can cut the shrubs to feed their animals or let them grow into branches for fuel.

The leguminous shrubs are high in protein, which helps the dairy cows.

"The animals produce more milk, which increases the nutrition available for the family and provides an extra source of income in many cases," O'Neill said.